If you have smoking brakes, you’ll want to inspect the brake parts. Problems like smoking brakes, sticking brakes, or the car pulling to one side could mean there is a stuck brake caliper. If you have a seized brake caliper causing these symptoms, find out how to inspect and unstick a brake caliper, and how to tell if you’ll need a new one.
What Should I Do If I Have Smoking or Sticking Brakes?
Inspect and Fix the Brakes
If you have smoking or sticking brakes, you might want to consider pulling over and not driving the vehicle until it’s fixed. Smoking brakes can be caused by excessive braking or the result of new brake pads and rotors breaking in, but if you haven’t been hitting the brakes much or haven’t had a brake replacement recently, smoking brakes could be caused by a seized brake caliper.
Driving with the brakes compromised is dangerous. You’ll want to fix this problem as soon as possible. We review how to check if a seized brake caliper is the cause.
Symptoms of a Stuck, Frozen, or Seized Brake Caliper
If the brake pads are stuck against the brake rotor and the caliper is unable to push them in and out, the heat from the friction of the brake pad material wearing against the rotor can create smoke.
If the brake pads are not moving in and out, they can feel like they’re sticking and grinding against the rotor. The brake pads can wear faster on the side with the sticking brake caliper.
Vehicle Pulls to One Side
A car with a seized brake caliper can shift to the side the bad caliper is on. The car can feel like it’s misaligned, and this can happen when the brakes are applied.
How to Unstick a Brake Caliper That Causes Smoking or Sticking Brakes
Steps on how to unstick a brake caliper
- Inspect, Clean, or Replace the Caliper Slide Pins
If the caliper slide pins are stuck and you have to use extra tools like pliers to remove them, they might need to be replaced or cleaned.
Inspect the slide pins for wear or damage like scarring, which means they need to be replaced. If they’re coated in debris, clean them.
Use 1,000 to 2,000 grit sandpaper to clean it, or coat it in brake parts cleaner and clean it with a rag depending on how dirty they are. Then lubricate it with more bearing, brake or white grease. When reinserting, make sure the slide pin moves freely again. The slide pins should not feel restricted or be grinding.
Tip: If the slide bolt is stuck, loosening it with an impact wrench and a ball peen hammer is one method you can use to remove it. Remove the bolt with the impact wrench while tapping the caliper with the hammer, being careful not the hit the brake line.
- Inspect, Clean or Replace the Brake Caliper Bracket
Clean the slide pin holes where these pins insert into the brake caliper bracket with rust penetrant. Spray the penetrant into the caliper and then insert a clean slide pin in and out to clean the interior.
The caliper bracket can rust underneath the metal brake pad slides/retainers, and it can expand them out and keep the brake pads in the same position. If the pads can’t glide easily on the slides and press the brake rotor, and if they’re stuck in a position where they’re in constant contact with the rotor, you might see smoking brakes.
The surface on the brake caliper where the stainless steel slides sit can rust and scale. Try cleaning this area with a wire brush if you find rust and a scaly surface, or something more abrasive like a file if there’s a lot of rust, but if the bracket is in bad condition, you might need a replacement.
Clean the backside of the brake pad slides that contact the caliper bracket. Before reinstalling the clips, place caliper grease on the mounting surface.
- Test the Function of the Caliper Piston
Check the caliper piston and see if it moves and isn’t sticking. You can have an assistant press the brake pedal to test the pistons, or you can twist the piston with a special piston tool.
If the brake caliper piston is damaged, you can try to fix it, but you’ll most likely have to replace the brake caliper.
More on how to inspect a brake caliper
- Inspect the Brake Pads
If the pads are sticking and you have to use force to remove them like a pry bar, large screwdriver, and hammer, this is a sign there is a problem with the brakes. You might have to alternate between tapping the top and bottom of the pad with a screwdriver and hammer to loosen and remove them.
Check the brake pads for scoring. If the caliper slide pins are stuck, it can leave marks on the and crack them brake pads from pressing against the rotor.
More on how to inspect the brake pads
How-to Videos: Learn More Than How to Fix Smoking or Sticking Brakes
Learn how to do more than fix an unstick a brake caliper. Find out how to diagnose and replace brake parts, suspension parts, steering parts, and more with step-by-step instructions from experienced mechanics.
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